Recently I needed some work done by a colleague of mine. I had done a lot of pro bono or free work for him and now I needed him to do some work for me. When the job was completed he presented me with a full retail bill. The work he did was what he had promised -- but nothing more. He had returned my favors by making me pay full price. After paying I began to wonder -- was I missing something here?
About a week later another colleague asked me to do some pro bono work. As I had some extra time, I did it. Several days later he called me saying he wanted to refer one of his clients to me. His client was a computer programming company that had management issues and he did not feel competent to do the work since he was a systems integrator. He also stated he wanted a percentage of my fee as compensation. After our conversation I began to wonder -- was I missing something here?
These two individuals are not dummies. They both are intelligent and educated. They both run moderately successful businesses. And maybe that's the key -- moderately successful. They must treat their customers, employees and vendors just like they treated me -- squeezing down to the last nickel. Perhaps they viewed me as super successful since I tend to not get worked up over relatively small amounts of money. I also noticed that these two individuals had something in common: they worry all the time.
They worry if they're busy or if they're slow. They worry if the vendors are charging too much or too little. They worry if it's tax time or if it's not. They worry that each nickel in assets they own is threatened. They worry if they aren't worried!
This oddity struck me and it kept my focus when I met them next. With each they were clenching their teeth, telling me how busy yet how bad things were, worried that they were not being as successful as they really should be. The smiles were forced and the voice strained.
Then it all began to make sense. They did not see that by taking advantage of me I might not be as willing to help them the next time they had their hand out. Not only that, if they were to get in a real bind -- which they will -- they may not be able to count on my ability to tell them what they should do. Or help them at all!
These two are not evil or even bad. They are actually decent people that have somehow lost control of that which made them decent. They have traded their basic understanding of business dynamics for a transitory figure that temporarily pops up under the net profit column. Their philosophy has become simple if not simplistic -- 'If it does not bring swift and significant gain it really does not matter.'
And for business people that is sad. We who do not have the security of getting a hand out must rely on the strength of the relationships we can forge in the dog-eat-dog world of uncensored competition. We love the hunt but we know we can so easily be hunted as well. Perhaps it is just such a fear that makes my two colleagues oblivious to decency.
So now I take deep breath when I think of these two. I hope they find some degree of happiness in the midst of all their anxiety. If the ulcers don't get them then the coronaries will.
I am proud to say that despite it all I really bear no ongoing resentment. Fortunately they need me a lot more than I need them. Thankfully the cost-benefit imbalance was not that significant and in a real sense I certainly did get my money's worth. These are two individuals that I might have been convinced to help out in a larger context. Learning bad lessons can certainly be cost effective in the long run by avoiding the bigger mistakes.
And I truly hope they are happy. Hopefully the tag of 'moderately successful' will not be too painful. As hard as they work and as much as they worry they deserve all the happiness and success they can get!